On the sidelines of the Helmholtz Juniors Annual Meeting in January, an interesting idea came up: our work would be much easier if there was a strong sense of community – in other words, if we “felt more Helmholtz”. As the well-known blue-white Helmholtz logo can be found on the websites (just have a look at the top of this page), letter paper, business cards, etc. of each Centre, I wondered what this name actually represents and started looking for clues…
The patron of the Helmholtz Association is Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the leading natural scientists of the 19th century. He was interested in a wide range of scientific research and technological practice covering the fields of physics, medicine, mathematics and chemistry as well as psychology, philosophy and music. He was one of the last all-round academics not specialized in only one field. His inventions successfully linked theoretical approaches, experiments and practical applications.
Born 1821 in Potsdam as Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand Helmholtz (the “von” came much later with his ennoblement), he was interested in the natural sciences ever since his early youth. As requested by his father and for financial reasons, he studied at the Berlin Military Academy and obtained his Doctor of Medicine at the age of 21. Over the years, he took several academic positions: associate professor of physiology at the Prussian University of Königsberg (1849, after being recommended by Alexander von Humboldt), professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Bonn (1855), professor of physiology at the University of Heidelberg (1858) and finally, professor of physics at the University of Berlin (from 1871).
In 1887 the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (PTR) was founded in Charlottenburg as the first non-university research centre worldwide and Helmholtz was not only one of the founders but also the first president. The PTR was kind of a forerunner for the present-day Helmholtz Association (and by the way, it still exists as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), Germany’s national metrology institute). Helmholtz was married twice and had three sons and two daughters. 1894 he died in Charlottenburg and was buried in a “grave of honour” at a cemetery in Berlin-Wannsee.
Research and Innovations
Helmholtz made many outstanding contributions in a great range of scientific fields. As it would be impossible to mention them all in this blog entry, I focussed on several significant ones.
In physiology and psychology, his research dealt with the mathematics of the eye and theories of vision, such as colour vision and the visual perception of space, as well as perception of sound and the sensation of tone.
His first contribution to physics was a theoretical research on the conversation of energy for which he formulated a law. He also was the first scientist ever to measure the wavelengths of UV light and determine the capacity of a light microscope. His “three component theory of colour vision” which replaced the earlier six component model became especially relevant for colour television much later. In the field of acoustics, he worked on the theory of air speed in open tubes and his research on hydrodynamics and electrodynamics set new standards for the coming generations. A device still used nowadays is the Helmholtz coil, which is able to produce a region of almost uniform magnetic field.
In mathematics, he made a major impact on modern meteorology as he studied thunderstorms, cyclones, water waves and air waves. The mathematical formulation of the first theorem of thermodynamics also goes back to Helmholtz. The partial differential Helmholtz equation is often used in physical studies of problems in both space and time domain and was named for him.
In the field of optics, he invented the ophthalmoscope (in German “Augenspiegel”), an instrument to visualize the retina of the eye for the first time ever, which made him suddenly world-famous. Another instrument developed by him is the ophtalmometer, which is used to measure the curvature of the surface of the cornea.
Additionally, Helmholtz was also interested in philosophy. In this field, he developed theories about the philosophy of science and the link between the laws of nature and perception.
With all that in mind, it is obvious why the six research fields of the Helmholtz Association cover the wide range of Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Aeronautics, Space and Transport, Key Technologies and Matter. The Helmholtz Juniors come from all the different Helmholtz Centres and therefore represent this broad bandwidth. For a good sense of community and a successful teamwork in 2015, I hope very much that we will all feel “a bit more Helmholtz” and maybe this article helps a little bit on the way there…